How to Write Character-Driven Stories
with Lisa C. Taylor
Memorable characters stay with us because the characterization becomes the story. A criminal may commit a crime, but his or her peculiarities are what make a reader remember. When a character lies, loves, grieves, or behaves badly, it is up to us, as writers, to animate the character in such a way that a reader feels the pain, anger, or love. Characters are what characters do.
In this interactive, generative course, you’ll learn how to let a character inhabit you—live in your body—and drive forward the story you want to tell. You’ll gain a better understanding of the role of characters in fiction, and learn to create fully developed characters that make your readers cheer, cry, rage, and exclaim.
We will explore many stories, from flash fiction to short stories, each with remarkable and memorable characters. We will trace a line through them, seeing how, in each case, character drives story. By the end of the course, you will have drafted two full, character-driven short stories.
Come and hang out with the truly odd characters that live in your imagination, and learn how to bring them to life on the page.
Learning and Writing Goals
This class is designed for any skill level. The exercises and readings have been chosen to maximize your understanding of character in fiction so you can find and write your own character-driven stories.
You will learn:
- To write and animate a unique character.
- To write in scene rather than exposition.
- To use gestures and habits in character development.
- To write a story that has emotional impact and an arc.
- To use original language and take risks with your writing.
- To learn about characterization from well-published contemporary writers whose characters jump off the page.
- To be welcomed into a larger community of writers, learning opportunities for sharing your stories.
Students will have written at least two short stories by the end of this course.
Throughout this class, students will be expected to write, respond to the writing of peers, and revise for sharing. Students will also respond to the assigned readings.
This course will meet on Zoom for approximately one hour every Tuesday at 7 P.M. U.S. Eastern Time.
Week 1: The Art of Animating a Character
You meet characters at the post office, the grocery store, at a traffic light. How you can breathe life into these strangers?
Assignment: Create a character sketch (in words) from basic observations in a place you know (coffee shop, laundromat, park).
Week 2: Bad Behavior makes Good Fiction!
The characters that inhabit stories are flawed. They walk into complications regularly. Your job is not to make life easy for them.
Assignment: Write a story with your character encountering an obstacle to something he/she/they want. The obstacle can be literal (a failed job interview, a break-up, a car accident) or intangible (recognition, fame, love). First Story Due.
Week 3: Gestures and Habits, Reputation and Rumor
Characters are what characters do. His nervous tic, the way she twists her ring, their penchant for arranging socks by color, all tell a reader something about a character. How they speak implies how they feel. For example, telling someone you’ve heard all about them upon your first meeting can mean you’ve looked forward to meeting them or you are pre-judging them because they have a reputation.
Assignment: Write a scene in your story showing a habit or gesture your character uses under stress.
Week 4: Lies, Deceptions, False Impressions, and Endearments
What does your character hide? What deceptions drive your story. Does your character utter endearments while carrying on a secret other life?
Assignment: Write a story that reveals something hidden about your character and drives the story to an unexpected place.
Week 5: Stereotypes, Non-Conformists, Unreliable Narrators
Can we trust your character? Is he/she/they quirky, unpredictable, or too predictable?
Assignment: Write a scene or story in the first person (I) using the skills you’ve learned. Make your narrator seem to be telling the truth until you throw the reader a few breadcrumbs indicating it may not be entirely true. Second story due.
Week 6: Wrapping up: Telling the Story
Using what you’ve learned from these weeks and the assigned readings, put together a story (can be flash fiction or a full short story of up to 3,000 words). Make sure your narrator is well-developed, unpredictable, and there are enough surprises to move the story along. Final story (can be a revision of one of the stories you’ve written thus far) is due—up to 3,000 words.
The Elevator by Karen Bender https://www.guernicamag.com/the-elevator/
Last Night by Laura Van Den Berg https://electricliterature.com/a-new-short-story-by-laura-van-den-berg-about-the-survivors-guilt-of-the-suicidal/
The Village by Antonya Nelson https://www.triquarterly.org/issues/issue-138/village
Gideon by ZZ Packer https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/oct/06/featuresreviews.guardianreview32
Eleven by Sandra Cisneros https://genius.com/Sandra-cisneros-eleven-annotated
Every Piece of Ivory a Dead Elephant by Geraldine Mills
Bleeding Boy by Alan McMonagle https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/bleeding-boy-a-short-story-by-alan-mcmonagle-1.2419952
Student Feedback for Lisa C. Taylor:
Lisa is generous and enthusiastic. She was particularly generous in offering guidance and encouragement about getting published, which was new for me, and invaluable. The topic, the assignments, and most importantly the quality of the work and the feedback offered by my fellow students were excellent. Interaction with fellow students throughout the week was the highlight. Peter Taylor
I thoroughly enjoyed the course. It motivated me to settle down and write, which is exactly what I was hoping. Lisa is a knowledgeable and dedicated instructor. Judith O'Leary
Lisa C. Taylor is a truly all-around phenomenal teacher. She kept us engaged and knows how to keep it interesting. She is very understanding and sweet. Great person and professor. Briana D.
Lisa created a stress-free classroom environment where everyone was encouraged to have their voice be heard. Each class was about something completely different. Brett S.
Lisa C. Taylor made us use our creativity to write and share with the class. She encouraged us to step out of the box and helped us to connect with each other. The activities were great and she was prepared for discussions every class. Caitlin F.
Extremely well-organized! I will use every piece of this material in my own classroom instruction. Lisa offered inspirational and practical information from which her students could draw. She provided exercises (ingenious, in my opinion) for getting reluctant students to write as well as offering evidence of their effectiveness. Great job! Jan G.
The room could hardly contain her passion for language, poetry, and teaching. I left this workshop strengthened as a writer, teacher, and human being. Darlene R.
The class discussed ZZ Packer’s story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”. Here Professor Taylor handled what could have been a tough moment with compassion, wisdom, and grace. A few admitted they didn’t like the story because they could not identify with the unhappy main character. As one student remarked, the main character “had the world at her fingertips” as a college student at an Ivy League university. Professor Taylor thanked the student for her honesty and encouraged all the students to engage in an open and honest discussion about the issues related to the story, one of which was how to present class and race struggles in your work without sounding preachy or whiny or alienating readers. The discussion’s progression from judging the character to trying to understand her was impressive. Dr. Dan Donaghy, Eastern Connecticut State University